A ballot, a billet - how will they fill it? The road to 2008

Will it be Hillary vs. Rudy? Or Hillary vs. Arnold?

Or perhaps, first, Hillary vs. Colin - paving the way for John vs. Bill or John vs. John?

Even as Washington takes its first official pause from presidential politics in months, fantasy scenarios for 2008 are running rampant, with potential and wannabe and we-can-always-hope contenders slowly but surely finding their way into the spotlight.

This week, Democrats converged on Little Rock, Ark., for the opening of the Clinton library - setting off yet another round of speculation about Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential ambitions. Not to be outdone, Republican governors have been gathering in New Orleans, where a number of would-be contenders are jostling for attention. In California, an independent group has launched an "Amend for Arnold" effort to change the Constitution to allow foreign-born citizens - like Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger - to run for president.

Of course, it's all very much in the "Celebrity Deathmatch" phase, more fiction than reality. Most candidates won't begin serious work on a White House run for another two years, and among those names currently mentioned, many may never run at all, discovering the limits of their popularity even before they get a bid off the ground. Several are facing more immediate and pressing hurdles, like their own reelection campaigns in 2006.

Yet the unusual prospect of wide-open nomination fights on both sides is already proving irresistible, as politicians - and the press - begin eyeing opponents and speculating about potential matchups.

"It's started all over again," says Marshall Wittmann, a senior fellow at the Democratic Leadership Council. "There's going to be clamor, noise, talk nonstop between now and Election Day 2008."

For Democrats, of course, Senator Clinton is this cycle's Mario Cuomo - a presumptive favorite whose universal name recognition and clout will probably provide her the luxury of remaining noncommittal about a run until the last minute. But either way, her shadow will loom large over the field, with every speech and every vote seen through the lens of presidential posturing, as Clinton herself well knows.

"I do provide a lot of copy," she quipped this week in an interview with Larry King, while steadfastly insisting she is "not focused" on anything other than her reelection campaign for the Senate. "People are constantly speculating about me and my life."

Clinton's reelection bid could wind up complicating things for her, particularly if Republicans can front a strong challenger. Names being floated include Gov. George Pataki, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (both also potential presidential hopefuls), and even Secretary of State Colin Powell, a New York native. And regardless of whom she faces, Clinton is likely to face persistent questioning about her presidential plans, and whether she intends to serve out her full term in the Senate.

She'll be asked the question "every day," says Jennifer Duffy, an analyst for the Cook Political Report.

Even if Clinton emerges from her reelection bid relatively unscathed, she may have to exorcise some ghosts from 2004 - and convince skeptical Democrats that it's not a mistake to nominate another liberal senator from a Northeastern state.

"She's not going to get a free ride by any stretch of the imagination," says Ms. Duffy. "There's going to be Hillary and the anti-Hillary - somebody who's kind of everything she's not - more moderate, probably from the Midwest or the South." Potential "antis" range from former vice-presidential candidate John Edwards to Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh to New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.

There's also former presidential candidate Howard Dean, who has remained politically active and is a current contender for chair of the Democratic National Committee - and, of course, this year's nominee, John Kerry, who has indicated he may consider trying again.

But the messier fight may actually be on the Republican side, where the lack of an heir apparent (given Vice President Dick Cheney's professed disinterest in making a run) is already creating a kind of free-for-all environment, seemingly tempting almost everyone to begin picturing themselves in the Oval Office. Some - such as Senate majority leader Bill Frist - have already begun laying the groundwork for a campaign, hitting the rubber-chicken circuit and stumping for GOP candidates throughout the past election cycle.

Other candidates showing signs of interest include Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, Sen. George Allen of Virginia, and Sen. John McCain of Arizona. There's also a handful of governors who may jump in - including Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, and even Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (sparking dramatic - albeit probably fantastical - visions of an ultimate political and dynastic face-off between candidates named Bush and Clinton).

Polls show the current frontrunner, if there is such a thing (and, really, there isn't), is actually Mr. Giuliani - though many analysts say he would face an extremely tough fight for the GOP nomination, given his liberal stances on social issues such as abortion and gay rights.

The same problem could hold true for Arnold Schwarzenegger - if he's even able to get to that point, since a run for the Austrian-born star would mean first amending the Constitution, a task that requires approval from two-thirds of the House and Senate and three-quarters of the states.

"I think it's good that America is talking about that," Schwarzenegger said this week on CNN, before hastily adding: "I'm not thinking about running for president."

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